You’re not writing, but you know you should be. And the guilt is starting to eat at you. How do you overcome writer’s block? Here are a few tips.
1. Listen to music.
The general consensus is listening to music without lyrics is best, though something soft and poetic—The Shins, Iron & Wine, Regina Spektor—works for me too. When I’m in the right mood. Or maybe just a mood.
2. Talk to yourself out loud.
Or a friend (even an imaginary one) if it makes you feel less crazy. Turn on your voice recorder, let your mind wander. Later, listen to the recording. Follow the thread of your thoughts, and see if any of it inspires a piece.
3. Wash the dishes.
It’s the sort of mindless task that allows your mind to shut off, drifting into a meditation-like state. Keep a notebook nearby to jot down story ideas.
4. Pick a character and find out what they want.
Any character. From a story you’ve already written or one that’s yet to be realized. Now decide what their goals are—what their motivation is. Write it all down. Bullet points. Sentences. Nonsense. It doesn’t matter. You’re writing! Look at you.
5. Turn off your inner editor.
Seriously (we’ll probably add this to the list a few more times, slightly reworded, for good measure). Writing isn’t the time for perfectionism. Words. On the page. Remember: they don’t have to be good, they just have to be there.
Read, watch documentaries, and take notes. When one discovery carries you away, let it. But don’t forget to write it all down. Consider using a literary swipe file to organize your research.
To your idea. To yourself. Is it any good? It doesn’t matter! Write a shitty first draft. With placeholders and cliches and characters who are empty shells and settings that are bland and lifeless. Let your plot meander. Create the bones of your story. Then go back and give it meat and skin and bite. Refine it and add layers. Take your time. Take years if you need to. There is no deadline, no ticking clock. There’s you and your story. You’re the only one who can tell it.
8. Write down five ideas every day.
Keep them all in one place, and refer to them when you hit a wall. Use them as writing prompts and start freewriting.
9. Carry around a pocket-sized notebook.
Everywhere you go, every thought you have, every interesting moment or person you observe—write about it. A conversation overheard. Tiny little moments, that’s what life is. That’s what shapes every story. If you note the date, the location, and what you were doing, the notebook can then double as a type of personal diary.
10. Reread your old blog posts, poems, short stories—whatever.
See if it sparks new ideas, a necessary update. Writers are often in the habit of putting stories away for another day. How often do you actually return to those stories? Revise the most promising piece you find.
11. Use writing prompts.
Pinterest is great for this. Create a board, label it “Writing Prompts,” and save your favorites. Come back to the board when you get stuck.
12. Create daily word count goals.
Set reminders on your phone. Calendar alerts. Don’t feed yourself until you’ve met your target. Water? You don’t deserve water! (Please, drink water.)
13. Forget about doing things in order.
Embrace non-linear thinking. Pick a place and start. Middle. End. Beginning. Pick the place that inspires you the most that day, and let the momentum propel you forward.
14. Go on a walk.
Or a run. The point is, get moving. A recent study by Stanford researchers confirmed what many of us have long known: sometimes we do our best thinking on a walk. Turns out, it doesn’t make much difference where you walk, either outside or on a treadmill. The extra boost of creativity will follow you back to your writing desk.
15. Get rid of distractions.
If your problem stems from frequent interruptions, find a different place to write. Go to the library or a coffee shop. Listen to white noise. Coffitivity has several free options in their Cafe Library: morning murmur, “a gentle hum gets the day going”; lunchtime lounge, “busting chatter of the lunchtime rush”; or university undertones, “the scholarly sounds of a campus cafe.” There are even a range of distraction-free writing applications available today.
16. Read a book.
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” — Stephen King
Read a book. Any book. An old favorite or the latest must-read. The important thing is that it’s a book you’ll want to immerse yourself in. Highlight passages you want to sink further into, write notes in the margins. Curl up and enjoy being just a reader again. You’ll likely find yourself itching to get back to the grind, the words of another helping unlock something inside you.
Set a timer. Abandon “the rules” (And who wrote those anyway?). Write. Write about how you don’t want to write. Write about how you can’t find the words, how it’s all shit. Write something true. Write something you wish were true. Write about that day you can’t forget, that moment you wish you could forget. The dream you had last night (I can never seem to remember mine). When the timer goes off, the only thing that matters is that the page is no longer blank.
18. Take a trip.
Go somewhere you’ve never been before, or somewhere you haven’t been back to for years. Let the memories, like ghosts, pass through you. Take in the scenery, the local customs, and don’t forget that pocket-sized notebook. Don’t forget to write it all down.
19. Keep caffeinated.
Sometimes we simply can’t summon the energy to write. During these dark times, I recommend good old fashioned coffee. If you’re falling asleep at your computer or notebook, then no amount of discipline will help you.
20. Write for yourself, or someone close to you.
Forget your reader—that “audience” any publishing house will want to tap into. You can worry about them at the editing stage. Write for yourself instead. And if that doesn’t work, what about a brother or sister? A close friend? A mentor?
21. Look through old photo albums.
Old photos make me cry. I can’t help it. My thirties aren’t far off, and nostalgia has been coming in waves. They also spark self-reflection, forgotten memories. Even better is when you don’t recognize the individuals in the photos at all. Great-grandparents or third cousins twice removed. Family vacations from before your time. Who were they? Then and now. What was their story?
22. Stop thinking of your “writing” as limited to one definitive piece.
One story. One medium. Poetry. Short stories. Blog posts. The novel you’ve been picking away at. That article you’ve been meaning to pitch. It’s all kindling for the fire. To use another analogy: you’re a chain smoker, using the embers of one story to fuel another.
23. Confront the truth: you’re avoiding writing.
That much is clear because you’ve read this far. You’re looking for a reason, maybe even a cure, when you already know—you’re the problem, right? It’s self-doubt. It’s the you that doesn’t believe in you. The you that thinks, why bother? Who exactly do I think I am anyway? So what are you hiding from? What’s the real problem? Write about it.
“Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” — Philip Pullman
That’s tough love. No nonsense. And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need. Thank you, Philip.
Tell us your favorite advice for overcoming writer’s block below!
And then get back to writing.